Economics and Religion

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at Lewis and Clark College’s current conference on “Reimagining the Good Life.”  Our panel’s subject was the relationship between economics and religion, in attaining “the good life.”  I opened with the following three-minute statement, which I’m sharing with readers as my “Reflection” for this week:

I remember the first time I began to understand that our economic system could be questioned, that it was not just a given, but actually the product of human choice.  I was a social work student, back in the ’70′s, and I heard a speech by David Gil, a professor from Brandeis.  “Who owns the air?” he said.  “Who owns the water?”

A word about the ancient god of the free market system, Adam Smith.  When Smith is quoted regarding the “invisible hand” of the market, what is conveniently forgotten is his assumptions about the conditions necessary to make free markets work.  Smith assumed that we would operate on a small scale and so would know the character of the people we trade with.  He assumed that our financial dealings would exist in the context of our values.  Instead, Smith’s writing is used to justify the mad pursuit of shareholder profit, which is held to be holy and untouchable.

If we consider ourselves religious or spiritual, we know that we must see and enter the suffering of the world, else our own spiritual wounds will never heal.  The question comes, though, how do we enter the suffering of the world?  Churches are most comfortable with deeds of charity alone.  I recall the words of Archbishop Camara of Brazil: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”  There’s nothing wrong with giving soup to hungry people–but the more difficult and dangerous way is systemic change, to get at the system that causes the suffering.

Wendell Berry looked at the derivation of “economics” in his book Home Economics.  Originally the word meant “activity involved in caring for the home.”  Now it is a sophisticated discipline, supposedly a science, grounded in mathematical equations instead of human values.

Do I, a minister, know enough to speak about economics?  Am I a citizen?  We cannot leave this crucial area to the “experts,” who have overlooked the poor among us, saying “that’s just the price we have to pay for prosperity”; who have called the bleeding of the earth an “externality”; who have been enamored of formulas in books and have not been concerned that children are hungry.  No, we can’t leave economics to the experts, because economics is all about how we divvy up resources and therefore it is fundamentally a moral issue.

We wonder that we can do in the face of forces which seem immovable.  Well, these forces are in fact subject to change.  Human beings have made choices, and different choices can be made.  We can say no, and no, and no.  We can say no, until they hear us.  And we can say yes, here is a new way.  It’s time now.  Let’s move there together.


I Am a Proud Cell Refusenik

According to the NY Times (10/23, B1-5), I am a member of a small and shrinking minority known at the “cell refuseniks”–those people who refuse to own a cell phone.

Now most of the people who do not have cell phones (a mere 15% of the population) do so because they “are older” or “less educated” or “unable to afford phones.”  These reasons are not mine.  (Well, I am “older,” but not so old that I cannot punch buttons.)  So I am among the refuseniks–the 5% of the 15% (that would be, let me see my calculator) less than 1% of the population–exactly .75%!  I have never felt so lonely.  Others all around me–walking down the street, riding bicycles, waiting for prescriptions to be filled or movies to start, in church, in business meetings, on trains, in restaurants, during serious conversations about death or breaking up with your boyfriend, and of course in automobiles everywhere–all these others are chatting away to their friends and business acquaintances, while I walk through the world alone. 

And, yes, I have made this choice.  Why, you may say, why?

Because I want to be present in this world.  It’s that simple.  I want to be with the people I’m with.  I want to see the fall leaves.  I want to notice the bicyclists when I drive (I worry so about them).  And another thing.  I am grossly offended–please note this, cell phone users–grossly offended when I am engaged with someone in what I consider a significant conversation, exchanging words carefully and respectfully, and that person interrupts our intercourse by answering a cell phone ring (often an offensive sound in its own right) and then begins another conversation in my presence.  And I am similarly offended when forced to hear one end of someone else’s conversation, which may be intimate or loud or boring or all three.

There are reasons for people to own a cell phone.  I understand that.  Single moms who need to know where their teenagers are.  People who take emergency calls of one kind or another.  Women (or men) who drive alone at night on deserted roads in undependable cars. That’s about it.  But wait!  What about business calls?  Business calls are not human emergencies. 

Someone asked me once, “What if a genie appeared to you and told you that you could make 3 inventions disappear from the earth–what would they be?”  Well, of course, you’d have to go for the weapons, wouldn’t you–the intercontinental ballistic weapons systems, the land mines, the nuclear bombs of all kinds, etc., etc.  But given that the weapons were gone, I know what my next two would be: cars and cell phones.  The planet might survive.  And I could tell my friend about my . . . well, about my life, without being interrupted. 


Rebirth–or Death?

On Oct. 8, a self-styled spiritual leader named James Arthur Ray led participants through a two-hour sweat-lodge ceremony in Sedona, CA, a ceremony which was supposed to be a rebirthing exercise.  Many began vomiting or passing out during the ordeal, and by the end of the ceremony, twenty-one people had to be taken to hospitals by emergency crews, and three died. (NY Times, 10/22/09, pp. 1 and A4)

The sweat-lodge ceremony was part of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event. Participants were required to spend 36 hours in the desert without food or water, on a “vision quest,” followed by a light breakfast and then the sweat-lodge ceremony.  According to one participant, Ted Schmidt, some people left and others wanted to leave, but Ray “was very intimidating” and discouraged people from leaving.  Ray told participants, “Play full on, you have to go through this barrier.” 

Who is James Arthur Ray, anyway?  Based in Carlsbad, CA, Ray is a new-age guru with a company called James Ray International, which made $9.4 million in 2008 from various seminars, videos, and books.  Ray drew a lot of attention from his appearance in the popular film “The Secret,” which focused on reaching goals, both personal and financial.  The Spiritual Warrior event cost participants $9,695.

Seemingly undaunted by the deaths in Sedona, Ray continued to provide spiritual leadership at events.  At a seminar in Denver this past Tuesday, he was interrupted by two men who shouted, “Tell them the truth!” and “You control poeple!  You stood in front of the door and refused to let people leave!”  Ray responded by saying, “I, too, want answers and am cooperating with authorities.”  He then asked for a moment of silent prayer for those who had died.

That such an tragedy should have happened is reprehensible.  Ray is responsible for these deaths, and I feel certain that he will be charged with some variation or other of homicide.  But the larger question that remains with me is, why did so many people ever allow this travesty to occur?  To answer this question, we must explore the present state of the human psyche, and try to understand why so many people are rendered so vulnerable so much of the time. 

There is not space in this weekly reflection to go into the depth needed to properly explore the answer to my question, of course, but given such a restriction, I want to suggest some ways of thinking about this phenomenon that has occurred:

(1) People in contemporary time have lost their god, and they suffer from the fear and emptiness of that loss.  They have substituted bread and circuses, but have found these lacking, ultimately.

(2) Many people are desperately looking for answers to their emptiness and the lack of meaning in their lives, and they will follow almost anyone who promises to give them answers.  They fail to look for something as simple as credentials.

(3) People are social creatures who will “follow the crowd” in spite of the evidence of their own flesh to the contrary. (Contrary to Ray, vomiting and fainting are not signs of spiritual healing.)  And they will follow the authority figure.

(4) Many people believe that if you pay a lot of money for something, it will be worth a lot, failing to evaluate an experience for its intrinsic worth.  One of the first signs of corruption in a spiritual leader is the high price (money and sometimes sex, always strict obedience) they  require from their followers. 

(5) It is easier for people to project wisdom and goodness upon a leader than to find it within themselves. 

(6) It is easy for any spiritual leader who gains a following to begin to believe his own PR–and that is a spiritual dead-end.  It’s fine to seek help from a spiritual leader, but try to recognize one when you see one.  They should manifest the qualities of humility, peace, compassion, and justice-seeking instead of self-seeking.  They should be reality-based, living on this good, green earth and not in some imagined realm someplace else.

This incident makes me so sad for all of us, for our longing to be whole, for our wish to give ourselves to something greater than ourselves, for our genuine need for rebirth.  Makes me feel like the Catcher in the Rye.


U.S Bishops Consider Same-Sex Marriage

U.S. Catholic bishops are currently reviewing the draft of a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” which they will formally consider at their Nov. 16-19 national meeting.  The National Catholic Reporter quotes from this 57-page document, saying that the bishops decry the rise of same-sex marriage as “one of the most troubling developments in contemporary culture.”  Same-sex marriage, they further say, “redefines the nature of marriage and the family and, as a result, harms both the intrinsic dignity of every human person and the common good of society.”

I must say that the Catholic Church is surprisingly able to up the ante on my outrage, over and over again–and now this appalling statement.  Their saying that same-sex marriage is “one of the most troubling developments in contemporary culture” makes me wonder how much the bishops are troubled by, say, the current development of global warming?  Or job loss and foreclosure, leading to homelessness and hunger?  Or the nuclear threat? 

At any rate, I was moved to write the following letter to the church leaders charged with the formal review of the document.  I invite you to join me, if you wish. 


Cardinal Francis George, President, USCCB, 3211 Fourth St., NE, Washington, DC20017

Archbishop Francis E. Kurtz, Chair, USCCB Sub-Committee on Marriage and Family, 3211 Fourth St., NE, Washington, DC20017

Dear Cardinal George:

In regard to your review of the pastoral letter on same-sex marriage, may I comment in light of my experience.  I am the Minister Emerita of a large Unitarian Universalist congregation in Portland, OR, where I served for 17 years.  We have long been an open congregation, welcoming same-sex couples.  The Acting Senior Minister (formerly the Associate Minister for 14 years) is an openly gay man.

I have united in Holy Union many gay and lesbian couples, and also married some couples, for the brief period in which marriage was legal in Oregon.  I can assure you that love does not differ, whether in traditional couples or same-sex couples.  Love is love, and it is holy, and given of God.  Marriage simply allows the couple to formalize what is already given of God and of their own hearts and further allows them to declare their love to the community and to draw that community around them, in mutual support.  This is a healthful and nurturing act, for all.

The times are changing.  At one time, good people–many of them church people–argued for slavery, saying that blacks “could not handle freedom,” and that slavery “solved the unemployment problem.”  One day history will look upon the gay marriage question in the same manner–and people will be incredulous at the arguments against it.  How will you and your church be judged then?

The best way to understand the love and commitment of same-sex couples is to get to know some of these couples, as I have done over the years.  Some that I married had been together for 15 or 20 years or longer, and many same-sex couples are raising children together in happy, healthy families.

Experience rather than dogma will show the truth–people change when they see the evidence of loving relationship in their lives and in the lives of others.  I suggest that you go closer, and see for yourself.

Know that many of us are praying that your heart will be moved to include all in the church family, equally and without question as to their sexual identity and way of loving.  All love is given of God, without exception.

Prayerfully written,

(Rev. Dr.) Marilyn Sewell